NFU tells East Anglian farmers: Make the consumer case if you want GM crops

Defra's Renaud Wilson speaks at the NFU GM Conference 2015. Picture by Terry Harris.

Defra's Renaud Wilson speaks at the NFU GM Conference 2015. Picture by Terry Harris. - Credit: Terry Harris Photography

The consumer benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops must be highlighted ahead of the agricultural benefits if British farmers want to gain access to the technology.

That was the message to farmers at an industry conference in Peterborough, which aimed to examine 'when, what and how' GM crops could be used in East Anglia's fields.

Delegates were told that GM crops are grown on 181.5m hectares of land worldwide and used by 18m farmers, yet in 20 years of the technology only one commercial variety, a GM-maize, has been licensed for use in the European Union.

Scientists at research institutes including the John Innes Centre in Norwich continue to play a leading role in developing the potential for crops with higher yields and better resistance to disease, drought and pests. However, developments have been held back by the EU's regulatory regime – and a lingering reluctance from some consumers to accept GM foods.

NFU Combinable Crops Board chairman Mike Hambly said: 'Despite all the benefits we've heard about today we have to ask what's in it for our consumers and we have to get that message across. We need to try and regain some common sense in this debate.'

More than 100 farmers attended the conference, which was chaired by NFU deputy president Minette Batters and organised by NFU East Anglia, NFU East Midlands and NFU HQ Science and Regulatory Affairs.

Speakers included Prof Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, who outlined a research project to develop a GM potato that would be blight resistant, nematode resistant and have improved tuber quality. He said the project faced technological, regulatory and communication challenges and, in a best-case scenario, it would be eight to ten years before the potato was commercially available.

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Renaud Wilson, from Defra's GM team, said GM crops had been grown globally for nearly 20 years and the evidence broadly showed they could safely deliver economic and environmental benefits.

He said he hoped changes in the way the EU assesses GM crops, which gives individual countries an opt-out, would make it more likely for GM crops to be approved for cultivation in England – although European countries including Scotland and Wales have already chosen to ban them.

'People have a choice'

Among the farmers attending the conference was William Brigham from Lyng, who grew four trial crops of GM maize between 1999 and 2004. One six-and-a-half acre field of maize was destroyed by environmental activists in 1999.

'I've got mixed feelings,' he said. 'The conference was positive in many ways but it was also worrying how slowly things are moving regarding GM crops in the UK. I still think they have a lot to offer.'

'One of the possibilities we heard about was modifying genes within oilseed rape so the plant repels cabbage stem flea beetle. We're losing chemicals to control pests and diseases so that could be the way forward.

'I think people have a choice. They don't like the thought of pesticides but if we are going to lose active ingredients we have to look at different ways of protecting crops. GM technology is one possible answer.'

The case against GM

Campaigners battling against the commercial planting of GM crops in the UK maintain that the technology would drive out traditional farming systems in developing countries, while damaging the diversity of farm wildlife and encouraging resistant weeds.

They also claim that farmers of GM crops would become reliant on buying inputs and costly seed from major agro-chemical companies which have developed the commercial varieties.

The Soil Association is one of the organisations calling on the government to focus research on 'agroecological' systems such as organic farming in order to produce better yields from minimal inputs, lower pollution, and more wildlife.

Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, runs an organic farm in west Norfolk and was one of 28 volunteers arrested for ripping out a trial crop of GM maize from William Brigham's farm in Lyng in 1999 – although all were found not guilty of criminal damage in the subsequent court case.

He said: 'GM is a huge distraction. AAt best pro-GM campaigners claim they will have a solution to one or two problems – the technology cannot deliver integrated solutions to the range of challenges facing farming – climate change, hunger, loss of wildlife, poor animal welfare, soil degradation and all of the other environmental and human problems caused by 60 years of industrial agriculture.'